By Leanna L. Heritage
Source: Shane L. Windmeyer & Pamela W. Freeman’s Secret Sisters: Stories of Being Lesbian & Bisexual in a College Sorority
CW: religion-based homophobia
The desire to belong has always motivated me to be involved in everything around me. I hated high school, but not because I was open about my sexuality. No one disliked me or harassed me for being a lesbian. I hated school because no matter how many things I was a part of, I still didn’t feel I belonged. I was a member of the National Honor Society, captain of the soccer team, and an editor for the yearbook, and I still wasn’t happy. I was a part of the social elite, and I had friends everywhere. People liked me and always have, but I’ve never felt a sense of belonging. I was on top of the world by my senior year. I graduated with honors and was ready to start my life over in college. I chose to head south for my education and get away from everyone I knew. Missouri seemed like the perfect place.
Let me start this adventure by describing the town in which Truman State University is located. The first thing one will notice is its size. There are only 17,000 people, yet there are more than 80 churches. Yes, I counted. “Huntin’ season” is a really big deal. The stoplights are turned off at 6 p.m., and the biggest crime ever dealt with is theft. Right in the middle of this sits the prestigious and beautiful campus of Truman State University. I loved the campus from the first day I visited and knew this was where I was destined to belong.
I had a great time my freshman year at school. I did everything I could, except rush a sorority. Becoming a member of the Greek community my first year at Truman, I felt, was not an option. Every invitation I received in the mail from the various sororities got a one-way ticket into the trash. Besides, I was involved in PRISM, Truman’s gay, lesbian, bisexual, and straight alliance, and there had always been an unspoken hatred and tension between PRISM and the Greek community. I wanted to stay loyal to my fellow queers, but by the start of my sophomore year I was aching to experience Greek life.
“Tri Sigma because everyone else has!” my friends yelled when I told them I was interested in joining a sorority. Everyone was such a joker, but in a way, they were right. It had been a year since I’d come to Truman, and a lot of people knew I was involved in PRISM and was fairly open about my sexuality. I got the impression right away that if I was interested in joining a sorority, I had to keep it quiet around my PRISM friends. They frustrated me by telling me I wouldn’t be welcomed in any sorority and that if I was accepted, I’d only be their sideshow attraction. Their resistance only made me more determined to go Greek.
Some of my friends on the rugby team were heavily involved in their sorority. I pleaded for them to let me come when they went to their various functions so I could meet more of their sisters.
“Leanna, we love you to death, but these girls won’t be…uh…very accepting.” This is all that they would tell me, but what they said wasn’t quite the truth. I knew about half of the members of their sorority, and no one had a problem with me. At least, I couldn’t tell if they did. I know they were just trying to be my friends, and they didn’t want me to get hurt in the event I did not get a bid. I finally gave up the sorority pursuit, angry and frustrated.
Later that year, the same friend who discouraged me from joining her sorority handed me a flier for another. “Here,” she bubbled. “I’ve heard nothing but good things about this service sorority, and I think you should check it out. The informational meeting is tonight, and we’re all going. Come with us.”
It was more of a demand than a request. I think she invited me only because she wanted to perk me up after my disappointment with her sorority. Joining a service sorority was not exactly what I had in mind, but it was only an informational meeting and it would give me an opportunity to hang out with my friends.
It was a damn cold January evening, and I was dressed more warmly than that little boy in A Christmas Story. My friends and I headed across campus for the meeting, and I didn’t even remember the name of the organization we were going to. Since it was standing room only when my friends and I arrived, we opted for floor seats in the front.
The meeting started and dragged on for an hour, but I wasn’t paying attention. I just kept looking around the room. Seeing all of these girls made me concerned for the first time since I began my quest for Greek status that maybe my PRISM friends were right. Maybe I didn’t belong here and I would only be laughed at and criticized for my decision to rush. I struggled to hold the fear and doubt inside, but I was doing a fine job…and then came “The Game.”
I had no idea this “Get to Know You Better” game was on the agenda. Maybe it was mentioned and I just didn’t hear. Anyway, it was a simple game. Within the little pocket of people you were with, one was to take a small piece of paper and write on it something unusual about herself. The paper would then be placed in a pile, and everyone had to guess what characteristic belonged to what person. I was at a loss as to what to write, and I was holding up the game for my group.
“Just put down you’re gay!” one friend hissed. So I did. It wasn’t as if any one in that group didn’t already know, so I just figured it would be an easy guess. No sooner had I finished writing “I’m gay” on my paper than someone walked by and collected all of the slips from our group. I panicked.
“What’s going on?” I yelled.
“Oh,” the girl who picked up the papers yelled back. “We thought it would be more fun and productive to do it as a whole group.” I was ash white. “Don’t worry, it’ll be fun. Just stand when they read yours out loud.”
“What?” I squeaked. My life in Alpha Sigma Gamma was officially over, and it hadn’t even started. I was planning on approaching the executive board after the meeting and telling them privately about myself, but now everyone in the room would know in just a few minutes. I was so frightened I wanted to vomit.
“Just don’t stand up.” One of my friends whispered. Good idea. It was so painful to watch the pile of papers shrink as the president of the organization read them off.
“ ‘I have a tattoo on my bum,’ ” she would read, and the room would erupt with laughter as a girl (or two) would stand up and introduce herself.
It was just like a sitcom. Before they had even read my note, I knew they’d chosen it. First the president gave the note a double take, and then she looked around the room. She turned to the vice president, standing next to her, to show her what was written. Her eyes lit up, and she looked around the room. Everyone waited patiently for her to read it off, curious with laughter about who was going to stand up next.
“ ‘I’m gay.’ ” She read it off slowly and precisely to make sure she was saying it correctly. The room had fallen silent. I wasn’t going to stand up, and I thought this was a horrible game. She was just about to toss the slip of paper to the side when she looked over in my group’s direction on the floor. My “friends” were snorting and chuckling with amusement at the predicament I was in. I had been the only girl in the group not laughing, which tipped off the president to whom it might be.
“Is it you?” she asked. “Please stand up and introduce yourself.” She was still smiling as I stood up. I turned around slowly to all of the girls, and everyone was staring at me. I felt like I was at an AA meeting.
“Hi, my name is Leanna, and I’m gay.” No one made a sound. I was too frightened to move, standing like a deer in the headlights. But then something wonderful happened. Someone clapped, and then someone else joined in and then another and another until the entire room was clapping and smiling. I sat down, grinning from ear to ear, and I felt things weren’t as bad as I had thought they were going to be.
Life began to zoom by at a million miles an hour after that meeting. I don’t remember all of the details of my rush season, but I do know that I’ve never been as busy as I was that semester.
There were about 30 girls in my pledge class to start with. A few girls had quit a couple of weeks into rush season when the responsibilities of maintaining classes, interviews, and social lives collided. There were still a lot of girls participating when the elections for our pledge class officers came around. A friend of mine was kind enough to nominate me for treasurer, and I won the position. It was a great feeling to win, because it made me feel as though I no longer had to worry about my sexuality being a problem with anyone in my pledge class. Everything was great until I started to fall behind the quota we had to meet every week for active member interviews.
The interviews were to be very casual. We, as pledges, were to contact active members of Alpha Sigma Gamma and schedule a time to interview them for the purpose of getting to know them better. It seemed easy enough, but on top of everything else I had to do, those simple interviews became a huge hindrance. Sometimes the interviews would last hours and sometimes 10 minutes. Sometimes I forgot to meet someone for an interview, and sometimes the active didn’t show up. Either way, I knew I had to start cutting back on my other activities if I was serious about continuing on with ASG.
My attendance at PRISM meetings and rugby practices began to decline until I stopped going to both of them altogether. It was hard to do, because as much as I wanted to participate in everything, I knew in my heart I could not. The rugby team didn’t seem to mind, but a lot of my PRISM friends took real offense to my quitting PRISM to join a sorority. Some called me names like “lemming” and “conformist” and it hurt terribly, because it came from the group of people who had first accepted me on this campus for who I was. I forced myself to ignore them. I knew I was breaking free of the chains that had kept me from my dreams of belonging to a sorority.
Though rushing ASG was hard, I was starting to feel I belonged with them. Everyone was so happy that our pledge season was almost over, and I had worked hard to catch up on all of the interviews. All of the girls I had interviewed were friendly and genuinely excited to see me becoming a part of ASG. Only one person I interviewed made me so angry that I wanted to quit.
I met this active member after her class, and we sat down in the hallway to begin the interview. We went through the generic questions first, such as “Where’s your hometown?” “What’s your major?” and “What year are you in school?” Every question I asked had been answered in a friendly, relaxed manner. We finished with the interview, and I was just about to leave when she stopped me with a question.
“Are you really gay?” She was sincere as she smiled with curiosity.
“Yes, I am.” I smiled back.
“You do know that the Bible says it’s a sin, don’t you?” she asked me with a concerned face. I looked at her in complete amazement. I was about to ask her what Bible she had been reading, but I bit my tongue and smiled.
“Really?” I asked. We were both standing, and though I towered over her by at least seven inches, she made me feel as though I were three feet tall.
“Yes, it does. Are you a Christian?”
“Well, yes, I am actually.”
“And you didn’t know this?” She was starting to make me mad, and I was fighting back tears. Yes, I am a Christian. I do believe in God, and here was my own sister doubting my beliefs and condemning my lifestyle.
“Well, truthfully, I don’t believe I’m any more a sinner than anyone else,” I replied. By the look on her face, one would have thought that I had just killed her dog. She edged closer to me, and her voice was stern with anger.
“Homosexuality is a sin in God’s eyes. You may be a member of Alpha Sigma Gamma, but you’re no sister of mine.” With that final comment she turned and left me standing there, crying with frustration. I went back to my room and made the painful decision to discontinue rushing ASG. I cried the whole time as I wrote my speech about my depledging for the executive board. I went to bed early and was just about to fall asleep when my phone rang. It was one of the active members of ASG calling to ask if she could interview me. After much pleading, I reluctantly agreed to meet her at the library that night.
We met, exchanged pleasantries, and found a lost corner of the library where we could talk. We sat down, and she started her tape recorder. We must have talked for hours about our lives and the hardships that we dealt with daily. Somewhere during our conversation, I told her that I was quitting ASG.
“What!” she screamed. “You can’t quit now—you’re so close to finishing.” I just smiled and told her about the horrible interview experience I had had earlier.
“You’re going to quit because of that?”
“It really hurt my feelings, and if there’s one person who feels this way about me, who’s to say there aren’t others?” She just looked at me shaking her head with disapproval.
“Leanna, the women of ASG need you. You bring us a new kind of diversity, and that’s something that’s been missing from this sorority. I broke the color barrier a few years ago when I rushed. Do you think everyone in ASG was overwhelmed with excitement about a black woman rushing?” I shook my head no. “There was resistance, but I still joined, and it was the smartest choice I could have made.” She paused to let what she had said sink in. “You see, ASG needs you to save it from conforming like every other group on campus. ASG prides itself on diversity.” She paused and smiled at me. “So finish your pledge season and make us a proud organization.”
Those words of inspiration moved me to plow full force into finishing my pledge season, and I became an active member of Alpha Sigma Gamma on April 26, 1998. Becoming a member of ASG was one of the greatest moments in my life, but it would have meant more if all of my friends from PRISM supported me. The tension between the Greek community and the gay community had cost me my friends. I was so angry that I vowed that this nonsense would end before the start of the next semester.
PRISM had been petitioning the student senate for years to create a gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender resource center. But their efforts had been in vain because PRISM wasn’t a strong enough organization to sway opinions and beliefs. I approached the executive board of ASG and asked if they would write a letter of support for the PRISM resource center. They thought it would be a great idea, but they had to present it to the active body to vote on. The letter of support was presented to the active body, voted on, and passed by a nearly unanimous vote. It was one of the happiest days of my life when I saw all of the hands rise in response to our president’s question “All in favor?”
Alpha Sigma Gamma was one of the largest organizations on campus, and once it sent a letter of recommendation to the student senate, other organizations began to follow. It was like a domino effect. Alpha Phi Omega, our brother fraternity, sent its support, followed by other social sororities and fraternities. After years of fighting, PRISM won their campus resource center.
Things have settled down around campus, and I have slowly eased my way back into PRISM while maintaining my active status in ASG. I still miss a few PRISM meetings for ASG events, but everyone in PRISM seems to understand, and they still welcome me back when I’m able to come. I never paid much attention to what happened to the one active ASG member who was negative about my being openly gay. We avoided each other, and she eventually graduated.
Rushing a sorority is not for everyone, regardless of their sexuality. The idea of being in a sorority, as I have learned over my years of being active in ASG, is not to rock the boat but rather to become a fellow rowing mate for the benefit of reaching a common goal. It’s about having a shoulder to cry on when relationships go bad or having an ear to listen to me when I need to vent about school. Above all else, though, I have learned that being in a sorority is about having friends whom I love unconditionally and whom I am proud to call my sisters.